Updated July 7, 2018.
On July 25, the feast of Saint James the Apostle, the Church observes the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), by Pope Paul VI.1
The Sexual Revolution
The context of the encyclical letter was the Sexual Revolution of the mid-sixties. Fashion, literature and the entertainment industry all contributed to an atmosphere where sexual mores were overturned. This was especially seen in Hollywood movies and television shows, the discovery of the contraceptive pill and the advent of the miniskirt.
In May 1968, the outbreak of student riots in most university campuses of the West gave the Sexual Revolution an ideological foundation, unifying and giving meaning to a whole range of disorderly tendencies turned against traditional morals. It was an anarchist ideology mixing Marxism with Freudianism. It denied all order, authority and moral norms. It can best be summarized in the slogan painted on the walls of the University of Paris’ Sorbonne campus: “It is forbidden to forbid.”
At the same time, liberal Catholic circles increasingly called upon the Church to “adapt to the world.” Countless theologians began to contend that the Church should change her perennial morals and forfeit her intransigence in sexual matters by accepting sexual ‘freedom’ and the use of contraceptives.
The Church Cannot Change God’s Law Expressed in Nature
It was in this climate of contestation that Pope Paul VI, after a seemingly long hesitation, decided to publish his much-awaited encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae. To the relief of faithful Catholics and the consternation of liberals, the Pope reaffirmed the Church’s traditional doctrine on the nature of marriage and the sexual act and condemned the use of the pill or any other artificial means of contraception.
The encyclical clearly explains why it reaffirms the Church’s perennial doctrine: The Church cannot change God’s Law expressed in nature. The document states:
Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.2
The encyclical is based on natural law and on Revelation, both of which manifest the will of God. The Magisterium of the Church was given the mission not only to interpret Revelation but also natural law, and it therefore addresses morals in all its aspects:
Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation.3
By its Very Nature, the Sexual Act Is Ordained to Procreation of Offspring
According to natural law and Revelation, Humanae Vitae emphasizes, the sexual act, “exclusive to them [the spouses] alone,”4 is by its own nature “ordained toward the procreation and education of children.”5
For this reason, the encyclical does not hesitate to affirm:
The Church … in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.6
Contrary to the today’s anti-childbearing mentality which sees children as obstacles to marital happiness, the encyclical recalls:
Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.7
To Oppose the Order of Nature Is to Go Against the Will of God
Thus the encyclical outlines the obligation of spouses to stick to the norms dictated by natural and divine law, as they “are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life” but “are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.”8
When the marital act is practiced in such a way that it “impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it,” it runs against the design of God, “which constitutes the norm of marriage.” Consequently, the spouses enter into “opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.”9 In plain language, they sin.
Contraceptive Practices are Condemned
Thus, the Church cannot accept but must condemn contraception:
Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the Magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. ….Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.10
In order to better understand the scope and seriousness of this condemnation, it is well to recall that the Pope made it clear that he was speaking as Doctor of the Universal Church and successor of the Apostles. Indeed, after expounding the new problems arising for the Magisterium, the Pope unequivocally states:
We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions.11
Inseparability of the Act’s Unitive and Procreative Aspects
Some liberal theologians claimed that the unitive aspect of the marital act alone is sufficient to justify it. Hence, it could be detached from the procreative aspect, thereby justifying the use of the contraceptive pill. The encyclical, instead, reaffirms that the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act are inseparable by their very nature, as established by the Creator. Therefore, man may not on his own initiative break the inseparable connection “between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”12
The Theory of the “Lesser Evil” Does not Apply
Likewise, such theologians invoke the theory of the “lesser evil” to justify using the contraceptive pill.
However, the encyclical explains that the theory does not apply to this case by affirming:
[I]t is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (Rom. 3: 8 ) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.13
Contraception Destroys Fidelity and Lowers Moral Standards
One who analyzes Humanae Vitae cannot fail to admire the wisdom of the traditional doctrine of the Church expressed in the encyclical. The Church foresaw the situation of the modern world in which the State would exhibit an ever growing tendency to impose its own norms on the family, leading to a frightening corruption of morals.
Indeed, Humanae Vitae underlines the fact that artificial birth control easily paves the way “for marital infidelity” and causes “a general lowering of moral standards,” particularly exposing young people to temptation.
“There Are Limits Which No One Can Lawfully Exceed”
For this reason, the encyclical emphasizes:
Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty?
[U]nless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.14
The True Solution: To Restore and Protect Chastity
There is nothing utopian about the solution presented by Humanae Vitae. It is the only one that really works. What is needed is to create an “atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded.”
The document notes that unfortunately the virtue of chastity, without which the family is doomed to perish, is attacked in every possible way:
Everything therefore in the modern means of social communication which arouses men’s baser passions and encourages low moral standards, as well as every obscenity in the written word and every form of indecency on the stage and screen, should be condemned publicly and unanimously by all those who have at heart the advance of civilization and the safeguarding of the outstanding values of the human spirit. It is quite absurd to defend this kind of depravity in the name of art or culture or by pleading the liberty which may be allowed in this field by the public authorities.15
Obey God’s Laws
Fifty years after its publication, the teachings of Humanae Vitae continue as valid as ever. This can be seen in light of the debate over homosexual “marriage” and so many other aberrations that so threaten the family and human life itself. Amid such confusion, the true doctrine about the purpose of the sexual act and, therefore, of marriage must be always reaffirmed.
Based on the immutability of human nature and on divine Wisdom and Will, Catholic doctrine preaches today what is has always, and will always preach to the end of time.
Such preaching may not always be popular. Indeed, Humanae Vitae was received with dismay and scorn by the promoters of the Sexual Revolution. However, such scorn does not make the truth any less true. In fact, the ringing condemnation of the Sexual Revolution stands out even more amid the moral chaos as a constant call to return to the true nature of marriage.
Difficult Times post-Amoris Laetitia
In these difficult times post-Amoris Laetitia, that epochal encyclical is a beacon that guides those who are faithful to the perennial doctrine of the Church.
Unfortunately, today there are not only theologians that want to change that perennial doctrine but also bishops and cardinals. There are even rumors that Pope Francis has convoked a commission to study the history of the document, presumably with the intention of modifying it.
Let us pray this does not happen. May the Mother of God, Virgin most pure, assist us to always be faithful to the immutable principles of the natural law and Revelation.
- During the commemoration of the 40th anniversary, Benedict XVI emphasized, “Forty years after its publication this teaching not only expresses its unchanged truth but also reveals the farsightedness with which the problem is treated.” Address to participants in the international congress organized by the Pontifical Lateran University on the 40th anniversary of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, May 10, 2008, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/may/
- HV, n. 18. The citations of Humanae Vitae refer to the paragraph number of the encyclical as presented on the Vatican web site: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html
- HV, n. 4.
- HV, n. 8.
- HV, n. 9.
- HV, n. 11.
- HV, n. 9.
- HV, n.10.
- HV, n. 13.
- HV, n. 14.
- HV, n. 6. Countless theologians are of the opinion that the condemnation of contraception is infallible doctrine. For example: Fr. M.R. Gagnebet, O.P., “The Authority of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae,” at www.ewtn.com/library/Theology/
AUTHUMVT.HTM.; Fr. John Hardon, S.J., “Contraception: Fatal to the Faith,” at www.catholic-pages.com/morality/fatal.asp.; Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., review of Humanae Vitae e Infallibilità: il Concilio, Paolo VI e Giovanni Paolo II, by Ermenegildo Lio, O.F.M. (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, l986), at www.rtforum.org/lt/lt12.html;
Fr. Joseph H. Ryder, S.J., “Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae as an Infallible Definition of Doctrine,” Social Justice Review, at www.socialjusticereview.org/articles/humanae_vitae.php.
- HV, n. 12.
- HV, n. 14.
- HV, n. 17.
- HV, n. 22.